Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hilton 'prime suspect' in Fla. woman's death

Death penalty still an option in Emerson case, prosecutor says

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 01/08/08Dawsonville — Charged in one killing, named the prime suspect in another and under investigation for two others, evidence is mounting that drifter Gary Michael Hilton might be involved in a murderous spree spanning three states within the last three months.

Hilton, 61, in jail for allegedly kidnapping and killing Buford hiker Meredith Emerson last week, may face more charges in Leon County, Fla. Investigators there say they are focusing on Hilton in the slaying of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, 46, of Crawfordville, Fla.

Dunlap, a Sunday school teacher, was found dead Dec. 15 in Apalachicola National Forest near Tallahassee. A masked person suspected in Dunlap's slaying used her ATM card on three occasions following her disappearance on Dec. 1.

Leon County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Rob Reisinger said during a news conference Wednesday that deputies can place Hilton in the area at the time of Dunlap's disappearance and that he is considered the prime suspect in her death. Florida officials said that a state forestry agent came in contact with Hilton after Dunlap disappeared, writing down his vehicle's tag number.

Meanwhile, the sheriff investigating the presumed double murder of an elderly North Carolina couple said he is "optimistic" the case will be solved based on leads developed from recent meetings with Georgia authorities.

Avid hikers John, 79, and Irene Bryant, 84, were last seen alive on Oct. 20 in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina near the borders of Georgia and South Carolina. Her body was found bludgeoned three weeks later while John Bryant remains missing and is believed to be dead.

Transylvania County (N.C.) Sheriff David Mahoney said there are many similarities in the killings of Bryant and Emerson.

In each case -- including Cheryl Dunlap's slaying -- the victims' ATM cards were used. Emerson, Dunlap and Irene Bryant were all found in state or national forests.

In the two most recent slayings, the bodies have been disposed of in gruesome fashion. Georgia authorities said that Emerson was decapitated, and reports have circulated around Tallahassee that Dunlap's head and hands were severed from her body. Local officials won't confirm it, but Maj. Mike Wood of the Leon County Sheriff's Office told the Tallahassee Democrat there are similarities in the cases that deputies weren't at "liberty to discuss."

Yet another unsolved slaying in which the victim was dismembered has investigators in LaGrange wondering whether Hilton may be involved in yet another killing, though officials are quick to dismiss any known connection. Still, there are "obvious coincidences," said Capt. Mike Nixon, chief investigator for the Troup County Sheriff's Department.

On Dec. 6, a passing motorist discovered the body of a woman -- still unidentified -- missing hands, feet and head. The mutilated body was in five black plastic garbage bags along Stitcher Road in LaGrange, which is west of Macon near the Alabama line.

Although an attempt was made to burn the bags, some evidence was recovered, including a Domino's Pizza coupon from Chamblee. The address on Hilton's arrest warrant for Emerson's kidnapping is on Clairmont Road in Chamblee. Nixon said investigators believe the woman was killed in metro Atlanta.

"We're looking into Hilton. We're looking into everything," he said.

Rumors have spread in LaGrange and Tallahassee that the slayings are connected, as each corpse was dismembered and the bodies were discovered within nine days of each other. Nixon said he's heard the speculation but so far nothing links the two cases. And as of now, he said, Hilton is not a suspect in the LaGrange slaying.

Meanwhile, Forsyth County officials say they are investigating whether Hilton may have been involved in the slaying of Cumming beauty salon owner Patrice Endres, whose body was found a little more than two years ago in Dawson State Forest, about a mile from where Emerson's body was located Monday.

Hilton is accused of abducting and bludgeoning to death Emerson, 24, who disappeared while hiking with her dog in the North Georgia mountains on New Year's Day. He is charged with kidnapping with bodily injury in Union County, where Emerson disappeared in Vogel State Park. Hilton also faces a murder charge in Dawson County, where Emerson's body was found Monday and where police say she was killed.

Dawson County prosecutor Lee Darragh said Wednesday he would not comment on whether he will seek the death penalty for Hilton.

Hilton was denied bail on the murder charge Wednesday.

Hilton's court-appointed attorney, Rob McNeill, said he could not discuss the case's details, but said Hilton "realizes the gravity of the situation."

At the hearing Wednesday in Dawson County, Hilton was made aware of the murder charge against him. He did not enter a plea.

Hilton never spoke aloud, but nodded when Chief Magistrate Judge Johnny Holtzclaw asked whether his date of birth was Nov. 22, 1946. Upon entering court from a side door, a handcuffed Hilton, wearing an orange jumpsuit and holding a pair of glasses, chatted softly with his defense attorney.

The hearing lasted five minutes. It did not appear that any Hilton family members were present.

None of Emerson's relatives came either, said Peggy Bailey, a family spokeswoman.

Through Bailey, Meredith Emerson's parents, Susan and Dave Emerson, told the Journal-Constitution that Hilton was not worth "our time and energy."

"Our focus is on Meredith," the couple said in a statement given Bailey.

The family was busy Wednesday preparing for Emerson's memorial service at 2 p.m. Friday at Central Presbyterian Church in Athens. Another memorial service is planned for sometime later in Emerson's hometown of Longmont, Colo., just outside Denver.

Death penalty still in play

Darragh, district attorney for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which includes Dawson County, told reporters after Hilton's hearing that he planned to take the case to the grand jury in early March.

Asked about the death penalty, Darragh has also said he was not a part of any deal made with Hilton to take the death penalty off the table.

On Tuesday, Union County District Attorney Stan Gunter told The Associated Press authorities had agreed not to seek the ultimate punishment against Hilton if he led them to Emerson's body, which he did.

Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said the Union County County district attorney's office discussed the deal with the Emerson family.

Steven Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights said reneging on the promise, even if it was made by another jurisdiction, would likely raise legal complications for prosecutors.

"I would think if an agent of the state made a representation that induced the defendant [to give up evidence], I would think he would be entitled to [get] the bargain," Bright said. "We will have a hard time having a credible justice system if the representatives of the state promise people something and then are free to disregard it."

Jack Martin, an experienced Georgia death penalty defense attorney, said that going back on the deal could also mean losing the ability to use certain evidence against Hilton — including the location of the slaying and the body.

"As a general matter, if there was a promise not to prosecute and he gave information on that promise, that information cannot, should not, be used in any trial," Martin said. "The evidence regarding the body would not be admissible, which would complicate the death penalty prosecution."

An autopsy performed by the GBI on Tuesday found Emerson suffered fatal injuries to the head before she was decapitated. The autopsy also revealed Emerson was alive for three days after she disappeared, but the GBI has not released any information about what happened to her during that time.

Emerson's body was handed over to a funeral home in Athens on Tuesday evening, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said.

The wanderer

Jeff Smith, of Sandy Springs, was one of thousands of people who have reported seeing Hilton moving around North Georgia and apparently living out of his van. Smith's encounter with Hilton provides insight into the lifestyle Hilton was living in the months leading up to the alleged slaying.

Smith said he found a makeshift camp Hilton set up on Oct. 26 at the entrance to a privately leased woodland area off Lake Alataoona in Cherokee County. The camp is supposed to be accessible only to members of a hunting club which leases the land, but Smith said Hilton's white van was parked on the dirt road blocking the gate.

When Smith approached the van, trash was strewn on the ground, several sleeping bags were in the mud and a stash of plastic storage containers was stacked head-high and covered with plastic.

Hilton told Smith he was merely stopping for a rest on his way to the Cohutta Wilderness, east of Dalton. The story didn't make sense to Smith, who noted that their location was 8 miles off I-75 and 2 miles inside a remote, heavily forested area.

"Immediately I thought wait a minute, this guy is hiding from something," Smith said.

Smith advised Hilton he was trespassing, then walked away after Hilton became belligerent and called the police.

A Cherokee County sheriff's deputy who responded to the call videotaped a 20-minute exchange with Hilton, who admitted having a baton with him. Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison said the deputy ran a check on Hilton through federal and state criminal databases before letting him go. There were no outstanding warrants, Garrison said.

After Emerson's disappearance, Garrison said detectives searched the wooded area in Cherokee County where Hilton was camping, but they found nothing suspicious.

Staff writers Andria Simmons, Rhonda Cook and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

No comments: